Ailbhe Keane

Izzy Wheels is a Dublin based startup founded by sisters Ailbhe and Izzy Keane. The idea was inspired by Izzy who was born with Spina Bifida and is paralysed from her waist down. Izzy Wheels started off as a college project for Ailbhe during her final year in The National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in 2015. Ailbhe saw that her sister’s chair was the first thing people noticed about her but it wasn’t a reflection of her bright and bubbly personality. Izzy was frustrated and upset growing up that there was nothing available for her to personalise her wheelchair. Ailbhe designed a range of stylish wheel covers that expressed a wheelchair users individuality and personality. Together their came up with the motto ‘If you can’t stand up, stand out’. Ailbhe received first class honours in Design from NCAD for Izzy Wheels.

Over the past 12 months, Izzy Wheels has collaborated with a host of award-winning Illustrators and artists including Maser, Steve Simpson, Paula McGloin, Fuchsia MacAree, Chris Judge and Marylou Faure to name a few. Last October Izzy Wheels launched it’s first fashion collaboration with iconic fashion designer Orla Kiely. The founders were named on Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe 2018. Their video on INSIDER has been viewed over 15 million times. They have been featured on some of the top global media outlets including TechCrunch and Adobe Create . They were the first Irish people to be asked to take over Instagram’s official account which had a reach of 225 million people. Izzy Wheels has gained a large customer base shipping to over 30 countries with 75 percent of their sales coming from the USA. In just one year of trading, they have won 7 National awards including the ‘Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow Award 2017’.

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

I believe some people are natural born leaders and others can learn. I was quite a shy person growing up and never saw myself as a leader. I was always very passionate about art, design and problem-solving. When I combined these skills to something very close to my heart, my sister’s wheelchair, everything came together. When I found this niche it gave me great satisfaction to talk about it and I grew confident. If you can figure out what you are passionate about and become an expert at it you can become a leader.

If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?

Customer experience is everything. Always deliver more than expected. Make the process of ordering right up until the customer’s parcel arrives at their door the most a wonderful and memorable experience. We make sure that our customers have a ‘wow’ feeling when opening their parcel. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool so if your customers have a great experience ordering from you they will become returning customers and tell their friends.

What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?

We are heavily focused on building a brand that people can relate to. We adore our online community and get them involved as much as possible. We have a ‘Spokes People’ campaign where we have a user from somewhere in the world wearing their Izzy Wheels and sharing their story. We find it a very effective way to promote a product when you see a range of real people and hear their stories. It’s much more relatable than endorsing models or influencers.

What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?

Our fashion and business hero is Iris Apfel. Iris is a 96-year-old fashion icon who lives in New York. Her motto in life is ‘More is more and less is bore’. She embraces individuality and expresses herself through the bold clothes that she wears. She believes if you don’t dress like everyone else you don’t have to think like everyone else. Style is all about self-expression and attitude and she embodies that.

If you could wind back the clock to when you were starting your career what advice would you give yourself?

Trust your gut! I launched my own company at age 22. I didn’t have the years of experience that most people have when they start their own company. As a result, I had to learn a lot first hand but by following what feels right for you goes a long way. You can’t be a natural in every aspect of your business so don’t be afraid to others ask for help.

What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?

My favourite book is “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh. The book details the story of Tony Hsieh and his company Zappos, an example of how thinking long term and following your passions first can lead to profits and a happy life for you, your employees, and customers.